Responding to a Recent Article About our Parenting Class

Chai Wolfman, a contributor to OyChicago, recently wrote about the online/in-person class we just offered, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.

She wrote that the great thing about having the material online is that she could come to it in five minutes here or there and get a nugget of content to ponder. Even though this class has ended, the material can still be accessed online. If any Chicagoland interfaith families with young children would like to learn more about this class, just email me: arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Chai also wrote about whether it is possible to get to know the other families in a primarily online class, which was one of our goals. I think families learned from each other's posts, but building friendships can only happen if they see each other for shared experiences. To that end, I will continue to share opportunities for our community to meet in person, like the JCC’s Got Shabbat or PJ Library programs.

The last point she made was particularly interesting: What does the term "interfaith" imply? I'm not sure how many kids use this term to describe their own family. Interfaith families run the gamut from families who want to incorporate both religions and traditions, to those in which one partner converts and they still feel that they are "interfaith" because they have extended family that isn't Jewish, to those in which one partner does not feel they have (or were raised in) any faith. When both partners are on the same page religiously they may feel that they are "just Jewish" or whatever other labels they give themselves. When families in similar religious situations can participate together in a program, it often leads to meaningful conversations about ideas that came up, what other people do, etc., and families often feel that having these affinity-type groups is meaningful. Congregations and communal organizations do wonder, though, what the best term is to use when wanting to reach all families across the interfaith spectrum. One congregation, temple-har-zion">West Suburban Har Zion, uses the term “multi-culti.” Whatever the term, I look forward to hearing from Chicagoland families who have a partner who is Jewish and one who didn't grow up Jewish or isn't Jewish: let us know what you are interested in, what challenges, if any, you have, and how we can better connect with you.

Chai mentioned wanting to find a welcoming congregation. Check out the amazing congregations from an independent minyan like Mishkan to all of the Humanist, Reform, Reconstruction, Conservative and other congregations in your area on our Chicagoland community page.

Lastly, as for requesting gluten-free challah as a pre-requisite for a congregational fit, this blogger is in complete agreement! Maybe fellow gluten-free families should have a challah-making group every Thursday afternoon. Or better yet, let's just meet at Rose's in Evanston! 

All interfaith families with young children in Chicago, who want meaningful Judaism and spirituality in your lives, there are so many options and resources for you. Help us get to know you so we can point you in the right direction.

Clergy Panel On Interfaith Marriage

I had the privilege to sit on a panel Monday night, May 20th, joining other clergy in expressing our views on interfaith marriage. This discussion was sponsored by the Winnetka Interfaith Council. The panelists were: Jena K. Khodadad, Bahai Faith; Rev. David Lower, Winnetka Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Samuel Gordon, founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette; Rev. Christopher Powell, Rector of Christ’s Church in Winnetka; and Herb White, from the First Church of Christ Science. It was moderated by John Lucas, MAPC, a counselor with the Samaritan Counseling Center.

Interestingly, the other clergy on the panel from Christian faiths and from Bahai had little problems with a Christian marrying a Jew. In fact, they emphasized Judaism as the root of Christianity and the parables of Jesus often mirroring narratives from the Hebrew Bible. They are not worried about the continuation of Christianity; they feel children in such families are doubly blessed. Interfaith marriage for Jews is so much more complicated, both theologically and because of the relatively small size of our community. However, when the progressive Jewish world thinks creatively, lovingly, openly, honestly and respectfully about how to make room for interfaith families exploring all aspects of religion, the Jewish community is indelibly strengthened and enriched.

The following questions generated some interesting discussion. I’m sharing my responses here. Let me know what you think.

In your experience, what challenges are there in trying to raise children of an interfaith marriage in both religions and what recommendations do you have to those who are trying to decide this issue?

It is theologically impossible to be both Jewish and Christian. If one accepts Jesus as divine and savior, this belief takes the person outside the realm of Judaism. However, I do feel it is possible to be enriched by two faiths. I do think children can benefit from being exposed to the faith, traditions, customs, narratives and cultures of both parents’ current religious identities or affiliations.

This belief is very controversial within the Jewish world. Many worry that children who grow up with two religions in the home will end up confused and angry. They may not come to affirm a strong Jewish identity. They may feel mixed-up and not know where they belong or fit in among mainstream religious organizations as adults. They may feel resentful of the need to “choose” a religion and feel that they will hurt one parent or another by “choosing a side.”

However, this need not be the case. A Pew study reported that 60% of adults practice a religion other than the one of birth. Identity is fluid today. People go in and out of faith communities. Children who have been passed literary and a love of two heritages by their parents may feel blessed and whole.

The challenges to raising children with an appreciation of two faiths is that they will be denied access to some Jewish organizations and other communal aspects of the religion, such as synagogue religious schools. These families will have to find welcoming synagogues, alternative havurot (Hebrew for fellowships, from the same root as the word for friends, this is a term used when families come together to learn and celebrate Shabbat and holidays together) and other avenues for being part of religious communal life including worship and learning.

Other challenges will arise in how to understand the theology of both religions and how to involve extended family who may have strong opinions about what children should and should not be exposed to religiously. These kinds of religious decision-making may add stress to a marriage or may enrich both parents as each one seeks to get in touch with what he or she really believes and wants to pass on to the children.

In doing premarital sessions with couples, what do you say to interfaith couples and what issues do you suggest that they discuss?

InterfaithFamily/Chicago offers a workshop called Love and Religion which helps couples learn how to talk about religion in their lives. In a group setting, couples begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion. If you are engaged or newly married and would like to join in the next session of Love and Religion, email me at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

In your experience, what are the keys to making an interfaith marriage work?

Interfaith marriages need support and resources which are specifically designed for couples that come to a relationship having grown up in two different religions. InterfaithFamily.com seeks to offer content to interfaith couples through narratives written by others in similar situations about how they handle certain things, and literacy about the meaning of different Jewish traditions and observances so that both partners understand aspects of Judaism. As well, the Network enables couples and families to “meet” each other online and discuss challenges they may share. Parents and couples blog about their experiences as well. We offer free, downloadable booklets and other articles which can be shared with extended family so that everyone can feel part of the religious lives’ of the couple. Both partners may feel that they have been challenged to be open, honest, flexible and giving in ways they may not have anticipated… but many say that their respect and love for each other is deepened through navigating an interfaith relationship.

Mazel tov, Mark and Priscilla

As our friend Jason Miller reported earlier today, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan were married yesterday.

A year and a half ago I expressed concern that the Jewish world was about to “blow it” again with a celebrity interfaith couple. At the time, a columnist had speculated that Zuckerberg was in love with Chan because she was not Jewish. I said that was ridiculous and offensive, and worried that we were going to see the same kinds of negative reactions to Zuckerberg’s relationship with Chan as we saw from Jewish leaders about the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky.

Sure enough, Dr. Aliza Lavie, from Bar Ilan University in Israel, reportedly spoke out against Zuckerberg’s marriage and pronounced that “The children of another successful Jewish man will not be counted as Jews.” 

Dr. Lavie, we beg to differ. There are thousands and thousands of children of Jewish men who count themselves and Jews, and who are counted in significant parts of the Jewish community as Jews. It is tiresome but necessary to keep on repeating this to Israelis – and to many American Jews too who haven’t yet got the message.

We send a hearty mazel tov to Mark and Priscilla and we hope they will find welcome and support and encouragement whenever and however they may choose to engage in Jewish life and community.

You know it’s official when it’s on Facebook:

Shabbat Family Worship: Is it Possible?

We just finished an online class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Participants came to their computers on their own time and read essays, watched videos, read narratives written by other interfaith families and discussed with each other the content and meaning of the eight sessions. The sessions were about major aspects of parenting, from bedtime to meals to raising ethical children, and the wisdom Judaism can provide about these areas.

An interesting discussion arose about Shabbat family worship. Parents said that Friday evening services were too late for young children. Tot Shabbat was fun for the children but didn’t fill the adults with spirituality or insight. Parents who were raised Christian said that they had warm memories of attending Church as a family on Sunday mornings: adults were able to participate in communal worship and children could join in or attend the nursery program. The whole family had an enriching experience that grounded their week and brought them together.

Why did this not exist within liberal Judaism, they wondered? It seemed as if Reform temples had essentially private bar or bat mitzvahs on Shabbat mornings, with no childcare for young children. Some Conservative synagogues had more options on Shabbat morning for the whole family, but parents who aren’t Jewish worried that they wouldn’t know enough Hebrew and would feel out of place somehow. I encouraged all of the participants to try both Reform and Conservative worship to see how they felt in reality, as assumptions and apprehensions may or may not come true. But the frustration was clear. Parents spoke about how their Jewish neighbors were taking the kids to soccer and swim lessons and anything other than Shabbat family worship.

I can relate to this frustration. I have worked at different Reform congregations around the country, and at least once a year it seems the senior staff would get together to talk about what to do with Shabbat! Were there ways to meet for earlier Friday evening family programs with dinner? If it was too early, parents who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. Every idea for Shabbat morning family worship would be put forth: musical services, services with crafts and projects at the end for the children, services ending with lunch, and other ideas to make the service more “attractive” or “appealing.” However, time and time again no matter how Shabbat morning got programmed, few families would attend. Even when rabbis preached about the need for this gift called Shabbat, the gift of time, of joy, of changing pace if only for an hour or two, of re-connecting… nobody seemed to bite.

Some rabbis explain this by saying that Judaism is a religion of the home, and it is not cultural to feel a pull to attend congregational worship. Families often do the Shabbat blessings over their own special dinner and have friends over. The kitchen table is referred to as the mikdash m’at (a miniature temple) in rabbinic writings because what goes on around the Shabbat table is worship. But that still does not answer our questions.

Perhaps this challenge can help bring positive changes to our Jewish communities. Maybe interfaith families will take the lead in bringing Shabbat family worship to liberal Jewish families who may not even realize what spending an hour or two on a Saturday morning together in song and peace would do for their family. Imagine if it became the cultural norm for families to come to synagogue from 9:30-11:00 on Saturday mornings in order to ground their week in hope, love and community. It will be exciting to see what ideas congregations can come up with for participatory, inclusive and engaging family worship with nursery options and learner’s services so that the whole family can come together in making meaningful memories.

A Jewish Tooth Fairy?

A question was asked on Ask a Rabbi, a project of JewishBoston.com. Quite simply put, “Is there anything in Jewish tradition about losing baby teeth? Prayers, folk stories or customs? My 6-year-old wanted to know if there is a Jewish tooth fairy.”
Great question. When I think of the Tooth Fairy, I associate her/him/zir with Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. Very firmly, to me they live in the realm of Things That Do Not Exist.

A good friend of mine was raised in a lapsed Christian home. Her family celebrated holidays, but mostly Christmas (Santa) and Easter (Mr. Bunny). Even as a kid, she knew that this wasn’t a religious approach; when asked her religion, she replied they were Commercialists. When we were housemates, and she was about to have her wisdom teeth removed, her mother called me to explain the inner workings of their family’s Tooth Fairy beliefs and practices. As her parents were not local, it would fall to me to supply the money ($20/molar!) and a note (dictated by her mother – er, the Tooth Fairy herself). Even as a 20something, my friend maintained her pretend belief in the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny. (Don’t get me started on the treats I had to leave out for her the year we were traveling abroad during chol ha’moed Passover [the middle days of Passover] and Easter!) The three characters were a core of her family’s not-so-religious practice. As such, I’ve come to associate the Tooth Fairy as being Christian (even if a lapsed Christian).

Given my belief that a pretend character is not Jewish, I was rather impressed with the answer Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek gave:

While many cultures have different traditions about losing baby teeth, Judaism has not traditionally marked this childhood experience. However, that wouldn’t necessarily imply that there is no Jewish tooth fairy. If in fact multiple tooth fairies carry out this particular duty, it seems reasonable to assume that among the multitudes of tooth fairies visiting children around America, at least a few are Jewish!

From my own experience, I have learned that Jewish tooth fairies do not appreciate skepticism. My mother recently showed me an exchange of notes that I had with the Tooth Fairy when I was about eight years old. Apparently I had been heard to doubt the Tooth Fairy’s existence, the result being that no money was left under my pillow, in its place a note chastising me for my disbelief. I then had to write a note in response, professing my sincere conviction that the Tooth Fairy did indeed exist. Apparently that did the trick, as the exchange ended, and I got my quarter (and a complete set of adult teeth). From this I would surmise that it is entirely possible to engage — and perhaps even bargain with — the Jewish tooth fairy, and that, in good Jewish form, dialogue and debate are always encouraged.

If you are seeking a new Jewish ritual around losing baby teeth, I encourage you to visit Ritualwell.org, a wonderful source of contemporary rituals and resources for all manner of life cycle events. There you’ll find a few suggestions for blessings and related practices to make the moment of losing a tooth an opportunity to instill Jewish values.

Maybe my friend’s upbringing was more religious than I’d thought…